Dean Heller's Strategy Bets It All on Riding Trump's Coattails
(Bloomberg) -- Senator Dean Heller used to be “99 percent against” Donald Trump, but now he’s 100 percent for him. And the Nevada Republican’s candidacy is perhaps the most important test of the president’s political influence in the 2018 election.
One possible reason for the conversion was Danny Tarkanian, an outspoken Trump supporter who revealed his intention in mid-2017 to challenge Heller in a primary and portray him as a squishy moderate.
Heller responded by making amends with Trump, praising him publicly and championing his ill-fated Obamacare repeal effort after initially resisting it in defense of the Medicaid expansion. And he was rewarded -- Trump pushed out Tarkanian, son of the celebrated UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, and Heller won renomination unopposed. The president has also visited the state to campaign for him.
“Dean is good. He didn’t support President Trump until I got in the race. But as soon as I got in the race, within five days he tweeted out that he had voted for candidate Trump,” Tarkanian said in an interview Friday at a rally with Heller, 58, in Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. “And ever since then he’s been the biggest supporter of President Trump.”
“He wasn’t going to win re-election by being an antagonist of President Trump. He would’ve lost his base. You’re talking about guys who are only going to vote for you if you support what President Trump is going. Dean made that commitment,” said Tarkanian, who’s now running for the House seat vacated by Representative Jacky Rosen, 61, the Democrat challenging Heller.
Rosen said Thursday in Las Vegas that Heller “sounds like someone who thinks his No. 1 job is pleasing and praising Donald Trump.”
“We need a fighter for Nevada, not a rubber-stamp for Donald Trump,” she said.
Heller’s is the only Republican senator facing re-election in a state that Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. His bet is that the strategy will mobilize the president’s supporters, and they’ll carry him to victory. It may work: midterm elections are historically low-turnout affairs dominated by older, white voters. Nevada has a high concentration of white voters without a college degree, who are the core of Trump’s base.
“I think it does help him to side with the president,” said Paul Gaudet of Las Vegas, a small business owner and staunch Trump supporter who’s backing Heller.
Nancy Hermeler, a retired federal employee who attended Heller’s rally in Henderson, said the senator’s support for Trump is a major reason she’s voting for him. She worries that if he doesn’t have enough allies in Congress, “we’ll lose everything President Trump has done for the country.”
Heller offered effusive praise for Trump when the pair appeared together at an Oct. 20 rally in remote Elko, about 400 miles (644 kilometers) north of Las Vegas. “I think everything you touch turns to gold,” the senator told Trump.
Rosen mocked him for it Thursday night. “Seriously, he says this to the president,” she said at a rally in Las Vegas.
Heller’s strategy could fail if the Democratic backlash to Trump translates into enough votes. The party’s prospects hinge on high turnout in the populous Las Vegas metropolitan area, and among the Latino population that’s grown to about 29 percent in the state. Among many Nevadans, opposition to Trump runs deep.
“He’s narcissistic. He’s xenophobic. He’s a liar. Everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie,” said Cindy Marval, a 53-year-old food server at a Las Vegas casino who’s voting for Rosen. Trump’s election has “motivated a lot of people who just didn’t pay attention before,” she said.
Jonas Rand, 23, said he didn’t vote in the 2016 election because he disliked both Trump and Clinton. But now the Las Vegas resident is voting for Rosen, because he views Heller as a “shill for Trump.”
Most polls in the last month show a neck-and-neck race. Separate surveys by New York Times/Siena and NBC News/Marist survey found Heller leading by 2 points, but an earlier poll by CNN found Rosen ahead by 4 points. One, taken by Emerson College Oct. 10-12, show Heller with a 7-point lead.
Rosen has highlighted Heller’s alliance with Trump in speeches and ads, nicknaming him “Senator Spineless” and labeling him “guilty of the biggest broken promise in modern Nevada history” by supporting the Republican effort to undo the Affordable Care Act given the threat it poses to Nevada’s Medicaid Expansion.
Trump “is part of the message, because we need a check and balance on this president, especially when it comes to immigration,” Rosen said in an interview on Friday. She also criticized Heller for not opposing Trump’s family separation policy that was designed to deter illegal migration. “He’s not listening to Nevadans. He’s not standing up for Nevadans.”
“He caved to President Trump,” she said.
After his Henderson rally, Heller told reporters that he and Trump have patched up their differences. “We have become friends, and we’re delivering for Nevada. And if I’m going to get criticized for that, so be it,” he said.
Tarkanian quipped that Heller should thank him for the nudge toward the president: “He should give me a win bonus for getting him to back President Trump like he did. ”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.